To the extent that a mythical West exists in the collective American imagination, Santa Fe is arguably its capital. Established 400 years ago by the Spanish crown, the town has seen it all: conquistadors, Indian wars, ranching empires, and shootouts at high noon. The Santa Fe Trail and, later, the railroad eventually linked this northern capital of New Spain to the rest of the nation, and to this day the town retains its mystique as a slightly foreign outpost—a place where the Wild West lives on.
Chic boutiques and galleries may occupy historic buildings that once housed feed stores and cantinas, but a cowboy can feel at home here. In what other American city is it considered prestigious to live on a dirt road? Western duds are everyday attire, and the overall aesthetic is decidedly rustic given the dusty, low-rise adobe buildings, some dating back to the 1700s. Santa Feans think of themselves as plucky pioneers living in a time warp, and these self-styled adventurers do have one thing in common with the settlers of centuries past: They all came here to start a new life.
The American capacity for self-reinvention is a uniquely Western value, and this quintessentially Western city continues to hold that promise. Locals hew to a live-and-let-live philosophy born of centuries of Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo coexistence, making for an intriguing mix: Stop at the Tesuque Village Market and Café, just north of Santa Fe, and you’ll mingle with construction workers, burned-out refugees from the corporate world, nuclear physicists, Hollywood celebrities, and Hispanic farmers whose families have been rooted here for 400 years. Head back into town and you can dine at a burrito cart or dig into elegant fusion cuisine (always prepared with a hint of chile, no matter how haute), then go for either a beer at a cowboy bar or a brandy in a posh hotel lounge.
Parts of Santa Fe are still zoned for agriculture and livestock, and old-timers with chickens and horses in their backyards live a stone’s throw from high-end art galleries.
And the guy behind you in line at the supermarket dressed in overalls and work boots might be a farmer, or he might be a state senator—or both. You can’t make assumptions based on appearances here, which is part of the fun.
History is not a linear concept in northern New Mexico. Th e same challenges faced
by the Paleo-Indians who settled the land more than a thousand years ago—like
finding sustainable water supplies or establishing a social order to apportion scarce resources—remain as complex as ever. Without a written language or symbolic calendar, the early inhabitants observed the flow of time as a circular one of crop cycles, gestation periods, and seasons rather than a forward march of weeks and months. Today, visitors joke about how Santa Feans live on “Indian time” or in the “land of mañana,” but this cultural tendency honors rural life, where time is a never-ending circle, a kind of permanent present.
A high-powered executive from Los Angeles who maintains a second home in Santa Fe commented recently, “Th is is the only place in the world where I can truly relax. When I’m here, I sit on my patio for hours just watching the light and shadows play across the mountains. I can’t sit still that long anywhere else.”
The acequia system (a watering method taught to the Spaniards by the Moors, who occupied the Iberian Peninsula for 800 years) was brought to New Mexico in the 1500s and remains a key cultural force throughout the region. The spring runoff from the mountain snows is channeled into irrigation ditches, and parciantes (shareholders) take turns diverting the flow into their fields and orchards. It’s a practical and highly democratic system, with the length of each person’s watering time determined by the amount of land and/or water rights owned.
Th e practice also works as a kind of social glue, as participants get together annually
to clean the ditch and elect ditch commissioners and a mayordomo (leader) to enforce rules and maintain a smooth flow. After ditch cleanings, picnics are often held so neighbors can share news of family and friends and catch up on local gossip. Keeping in touch and maintaining relationships are as important as the water itself, and the ancient system continues to help defi ne the community and its values in a productive and time-honored way.
Former Tesuque mayordomo and longtime horse rancher J.R. Chavez recalls that, in his youth, most of his neighbors were engaged full time in farming and raising sheep
and horses. Many people in the tiny hamlets near town still use woodstoves for cooking and heating and supplement their food supply from gardensand by hunting elk, deer, and rabbit.
“The acequia was our lifeline,” he recalls. Now in his 90s, Chavez notes that while today’s rural residents are more likely to commute to a job in town than work the land or raise livestock, they still benefi t from the neighborly contact and connection to the land that the old watering system provides.
“Nowadays, they mostly hire someone to oversee their ditch rights rather than work it themselves,” he laments. “But you still see them out there on weekends with a shovel and a hoe, directing the water and getting close to the land. It makes me happy to know that the water rights are staying with the land instead of being sold to developers. The old ways live on.”
The scale of the northern New Mexico landscape is more human and accessible
than the more famous and stunning geographic attractions the West. The towering
evergreens of the Pacifi c Northwest and the gaping chasm of the Grand Canyon may
be awe-inspiring, but they tend to make people feel small and insignifi cant in the face of nature at its most extreme. The New Mexico landscape, in contrast, embraces and empowers you, connecting visitors and longtime residents to the land and to nature’s energy. Living here makes you feel like a vital part of a greater whole.
The region’s muted palette of grays, greens, and endless varieties of brown doesn’t hit you in the face. It sneaks into your soul gradually, eventually training your eye to appreciate subtle variations in your surroundings—the rolling piñonand juniper-dotted hills to the sage-brush-covered llano. The seemingly endless sky seems to unite these different landscapes, the astringent aromas of the high-desert vegetation borne on its winds.
The Native Americans here see Father Sky as the masculine counterpart to Mother
Earth, the bringer of rain, snow, sun, and wind to fertilize the terrestrial womb. His
many moods are refl ected in his ever-shifting colors and nebulous shapes: intense
blues made luminous by a burning sun, shades of charcoal edged in silver signaling
an approaching storm, fast-moving clouds whose shadows alter the landscape below
as they navigate the heavens.
“There’s nothing here,” some would say. But that’s what has attracted so many artists to Santa Fe and northern New Mexico, and what continues to inspire an astonishing level of creative output. Santa Fe is the third biggest art market in the nation, after New York and Los Angeles. Since the first days of human habitation, local artists have rendered their observations and interpretations of the world around them, and their vision continues to evolve. The ancient Native American pottery has been increasingly refined over the centuries to the point where it’s now considered fi ne art. Internationally renowned contemporary artists like Bruce Nauman and the late Agnes Martin share the artistic landscape with regionalists like cowboy artist Gary Niblett.
There are other infl uences, too: Hispanic folk art inspired by religious devotion is grounded in the art forms of medieval Spain, mixing a mystical European flavor with the frontier aesthetic to reflect the unique cultural underpinnings of the region. Intricate woodcarvings adorn utilitarian features like beams, posts, and gates, and colorful tile work blends the Spanish-Moorish style of mosaic with a more regional look that’s instantly recognizable as a product of the Southwest.
The melding of the ancient and the modern, in both the art and the lifestyle, is more pronounced here than elsewhere in the West, in part because the land has been continuously occupied. Th e Indian pueblos predate the arrival of the Europeans
by several hundred, perhaps thousands, of years, and the mountain villages that surround Santa Fe have been home to many generations of the original Hispanic
families who settled there. The old ways still reign in these places, despite modern
encroachments like satellite dishes and Internet access—which is still mostly dial-up,
leaving people only marginally wired.
A more recent, and more controversial, use of the land is mineral extraction. Obsolete mining laws, originally designed to lure the country’s population westward, are occasioning a new focus on individual property rights. It turns out that most New Mexico landowners have claim only to the surface of their land, which means that outside entities can purchase oil and mineral rights out from under them and literally set up a mining operation in their front yard, without having to compensate them in any way for polluting their wells or contaminating the soil.
Just a couple of years ago, a drilling company bought the oil rights in the Galisteo Basin southeast of Santa Fe, threatening the peace and livelihood of landowners there
who were stunned to discover just how limited their rights were. A hue and cry from the community and local politicians has kept that drilling operation at bay, at least temporarily, but the threat of losing everything to archaic land-use policies continues
to lurk. It’s here in the non-mythical West that laws and policies devised a half a
continent away play out in real time.
Western notions of self-determination and individual freedom can be fragile when they butt up against the realities of dwindling resources and aggressive profit motives. In that regard, Santa Fe and its surroundings are more bellwether of the future than relic of the past, a living laboratory rather than a living museum. Political matters like these, the scarcity of water, and the paucity of moneymaking industries tend to keep Santa Feans grounded in the day-to-day—despite the ethereal exploits of the New Agers and other seekers of self-realization attracted to the city’s spiritual quality (its Spanish name, after all, means the City of Holy Faith).
The city off ers a stirring evocation of times past, yet manages to be a trailblazer of 21st-century solutions. With 400 years of experience, Santa Fe meets the world—
and the future—with its boots on.
Plan It: New Mexico
The Bishop’s Lodge Ranch Resort and Spa offers guided horseback trips, hiking, and other activities.
Find authentic Southwestern ambience, plus a secluded yet convenient location at Inn on the Alameda.
The Lodge and Ranch at Chama Land & Cattle Company in Chama, N.M. is a sportsman’s paradise, with a beautifully appointed lodge on private acreage with prime hunting and fishing.
Taos Inn offers a romantic (and aff ordable) getaway in the heart of Taos’ historic district.
Bobcat Bite is a tiny roadhouse that’s big on atmosphere and known for its hamburgers.
The Pink Adobe serves delicious regional food in a cozy adobe setting.
The Moreno Valley Cowboy Evening in Red River features a full spread and live music. 575-754-2769,
Coyote Café is a culinary landmark, with upscale Southwestern cuisine and a killer wine list.
Horseback ride at Red River Stables.
Ride the historic Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad from Chama to Antonito, Colo. 888-286-2737,
See “Sole Mates: Cowboy Boots and Art” (5/14-9/5) at the New Mexico Museum of Art. 505-476-5072,
Explore atomic history in Los Alamos, N.M.